Iceland prepares for World Without Oil
Iceland is already preparing for the day when petroleum production ceases and the planet needs an alternative power source. The tiny island is switching to hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe. Prof. Bragi Arnason is the visionary behind Iceland's recent declaration that it will become the first country to eradicate oil from its economy. Icelanders figure that by 2030, all of their cars, buses, ships and airplanes will run on hydrogen.
A world without oil
Iceland is already preparing for the day when
petroleum production ceases and the planet needs
an alternative power source. The tiny island is
switching to hydrogen, the most plentiful element
in the universe. ALANNA MITCHELL reports
By ALANNA MITCHELL
Saturday, December 7, 2002 - Page F7
link to www.theglobeandmail.com
REYKJAVIK -- The contraption sitting in Bragi Arnason's chemistry lab doesn't look like much. There's a battered orange desk lamp meant to represent the sun. Next to it, a clear hose runs through an electrolyzer that resembles a science-fair project.
Prof. Arnason turns on the lamp. A few bubbles of gas trickle through the apparatus, eventually sending a dime-store fan spinning gently around. He is triumphant. He has just turned hydrogen into electricity.
"In the second half of this century, this will be the main energy source for mankind," he says, his face beaming. "It's sustainable. It's clean. All you need is water."
Prof. Arnason, who is head of chemistry at the University of Reykjavik, is the visionary behind Iceland's recent declaration that it will become the first country to eradicate oil from its economy. Icelanders figure that by 2030, all of their cars, buses, ships and airplanes will run on hydrogen.
So fine. Replacing fossil fuels may work for an odd little nation with only 280,000 souls and cars that never leave the island. But the future energy source for all humankind?
Although it may seem hard to believe as yet another oil war threatens to break out in the Middle East and as Canada lines up to vote on the Kyoto Protocol on Monday, the post-fossil-fuel era is already under way.
Politicians, economists, engineers, academics and business leaders around the world understand that oil production is slowing and will end within decades and they are planning for a world without oil. And right now, the consensus is that hydrogen -- the fuel that sent space ships to the moon and produces no climate-altering pollution -- is the likeliest replacement.
The world's automobile makers are putting prototypes of the hydrogen-powered car in their showrooms. The first wide-scale pilot project using hydrogen to fuel transport buses begins next June in 10 European cities, including Reykjavik.
In October, a hydrogen fuelling station opened in the San Francisco Bay area for the handful of experimental hydrogen vehicles in that part of the world. The group behind the plan, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, expects to have 60 fuel-cell cars and buses on the road by next year.
Prognosticators such as U.S. futurist Jeremy Rifkin, whose new book is The Hydrogen Economy (Putnam), argue that hydrogen promises to be so easy to make and so widespread that the poorest citizens in the world will eventually be able to produce as much hydrogen energy as they need in their own back yards.
"We are at the dawn of a new economy, powered by hydrogen, that will fundamentally change the nature of our market and our political and social institutions, just as coal and steam power did at the beginning of the industrial age," Mr. Rifkin wrote recently in The Guardian.
To understand how big the worldwide potential for hydrogen is, it's important to know what tiny Iceland is doing with it and how far the experiment has progressed.
But it's also important to know why Icelanders bother. Why not just go with the petroleum flow for now, like the rest of the world? To understand that is to understand Iceland.
Burrow deep into the Icelandic mindset, and you begin to see how the world could look if all oil bets were off, if the Kyoto Protocol were laughably irrelevant, the Middle East just a geographic curiosity, the climate back to normal.
You begin to see the world as Bragi Arnason does.
For Prof. Arnason, 67, the journey to hydrogen started 40 years ago on top of Iceland's biggest glacier. He was fresh from earning his PhD in chemistry and wanted to map the country's vast stores of volcanically heated underground water. The island sits on top of an underground radiator fired by heat from the Earth's crust, and steam rises constantly through fissures and faults that shift day by day. (Beneath Iceland, two of the Earth's tectonic plates are splitting apart at the rate of a couple of centimetres a year.)
But once Prof. Arnason had mapped the reserves, he realized that just a small fraction of the super-heated water was being used for energy. At the same time, because Iceland has no fossil fuels, it was importing more than 40 per cent of the energy consumed in the country -- at tremendous expense.
Icelanders are accustomed to using up what's around them -- they still have a taste for sour food (one prized dish is rotted shark), developed when their forebears did without refrigeration.
So when Prof. Arnason realized that his country wasn't using up the energy it was sitting on, he was horrified. "It is only natural to say, 'Couldn't we produce our own?' "
Today, tacked on the drab concrete walls of Prof. Arnason's office is his framed certificate as a finalist last year in the World Technology Awards for the Environment, the tech community's Oscars. He was nominated for his work on hydrogen.
The winner was Geoffrey Ballard, head of Ballard Power Systems Inc., based in Burnaby, B.C. He won the award for his advances on the hydrogen fuel cell, the technical breakthrough that allows hydrogen energy to be converted quickly and cheaply into electricity. This is what has caught the interest of the world's car makers.
The fuel cell creates an electric current through a chemical reaction, but unlike a regular battery, it doesn't wear out or need to be recharged. All it needs is a continuous supply of hydrogen because its energy is harvested from the atom itself.
Hydrogen has the simplest atomic structure of any element -- one proton and one electron. The fuel cell separates the negatively charged electrons from the positively charged protons through a process called electrolysis.
Then the protons get sucked through a membrane that won't allow the electrons through. The electrons are forced to travel through an external circuit on their way to rejoin the protons. That flow creates electricity.
In the meantime, the protons hook up with oxygen atoms in the air on the other side of the membrane. When the electrons finally join the group, the result is molecules of water made up of one oxygen atom and two complete hydrogen atoms.
The advantages to hydrogen energy are huge. For one thing, there is no combustion and therefore no pollution, no greenhouse gas emissions and no need for a Kyoto Protocol. The water produced at the end of the chemical reaction is so pure that astronauts on the space shuttles drank the water produced as waste from the liquid hydrogen fuel that powered their rockets.
As well, hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe. So there's lots around to harness for electricity. And because it is everywhere, no one would need to have control over the production and distribution of the world's power.
That is why Mr. Rifkin is so excited about hydrogen. He believes that it would give each of the planet's citizens equal access to power.
But if the possibilities beggar the imagination, the downsides come close to defeating it.
There are still huge logistical problems to overcome, such as figuring out how a car can hold enough hydrogen to make it run as far as on a tank of gasoline.
And if that could be worked out, there would eventually have to be an infrastructure -- maybe more hydrogen pumps like the one in California? -- to fill the cars up.
These are the problems the European Union, the United States and Japan are plowing research money into.
Beyond this is another problem: To unleash the energy contained within the atomic structure of this primordial element, you need power. That's because hydrogen atoms exist on the Earth only in combination with other substances. You have to use energy to strip hydrogen away from whatever other atom it has combined with.
As well, it takes energy to separate the hydrogen atom into electrons and protons. The long-term hopes are that new, renewable technologies will harness the power of the sun, the Earth, the wind, the rivers or the waves to create the energy needed to make hydrogen, the relatively more portable and efficient type of energy that can run cars.
The reason Icelanders think that they can convert to a hydrogen economy is that they already have plenty of cheap, renewable thermal power, just the ticket to free up all that hydrogen. Iceland can make as much hydrogen power as it needs, Prof. Arnason says.
Of course, Canada is in the same boat, flush as it is with cheap hydroelectric power and the potential for harnessing far more, he points out. "You could start the transformation," he says.
Right now, the chemists in Prof. Arnason's lab are puzzling over the final details of storing enough hydrogen to run a vehicle for as long as a tank of gas. The stumbling block for them is that so far, a tank of hydrogen gas will make a car run for only about 100 to 150 kilometres. Whiel hydrogen gas would not be more expensive than gasoline, it would be less convenient.
There are rivals to hydrogen's stake as the world's next big source of energy.
British chemist Peter Rowland, after whom one of the hydrogen-producing processes is named, believes biomass fuels will eventually win the day because hydrogen is too volatile and hard to control. Biomass, including such liquid fuels as ethanol, could use the system now used for gasoline.
Still, a high-level workshop of car makers and energy experts partly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy in October, 1999, came to the conclusion that none of the barriers to a hydrogen economy is insurmountable.
The European Union, with its 360 million citizens in 15 nations, will spend more than 2 billion euros (about $3-billion) on research into sustainable energy, much of it on fuel cells over the next five years. By 2010, the EU will get 22 per cent of its electricity and 12 per cent of all energy from renewable sources, mainly hydrogen fuel cells, says Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission.
The first practical trial of hydrogen vehicles in Europe starts next June, when 30 Mercedes-Benz hydrogen buses will hit the streets of 10 cities, including Hamburg, Paris, Barcelona and Reykjavik.
German-based DaimlerChrysler is set to mass-produce hydrogen transport buses by 2005 at a cost that will rival that of diesel buses. In its fiscal year 2001, the company spent $900-million (U.S.) on research and development of fuel cell technology and vehicles that use more than one fuel.
The Japanese government is in the second phase of a 30 billion yen (roughly $360-million) project aimed at setting up the infrastructure needed to supply hydrogen to consumers, both for filling up cars and for stand-alone electricity generators.
But of all the countries, none is as far along as Iceland. It vowed to replace the Reykjavik city buses with a hydrogen-run fleet as the next phase of its transformation. Then it's on to replacing private cars and the fishing fleet. Prof. Arnason sees no reason this can't happen by 2030.
Politicians, academics and businesspeople from all over the world are showing up in Reykjavik to soak up the determination and ask for help to seize control of their own energy sources. Whenever the visitors begin to wonder whether the oil-free future is just too remote, the Icelanders send them to the Blue Lagoon spa on the southwestern peninsula.
This, too, started as a crazy dream to use up what's available and cut down on fossil fuels. It's so successful that it gives Icelanders perfect faith that they can make hydrogen work too.
The great joke is that this salty, healing spa is really the waste pit from Swartsengi, the geothermal electricity and space-heating plant that was Iceland's first energy brainchild. Swartsengi's stacks, yawning round windows and Star Wars-like architecture form a backdrop for the spa.
About 30 years ago, the Icelanders drilled a kilometre or two down to tap the hot salty water heated by the Earth's crust. It burst out at about 242 degrees Celsius.
They figured out how to strip the energy out of the water and convert it into electricity. Once they extract enough heat out of it to get its temperature down to 100 degrees, they transfer some of that heat to freshwater and run it through insulated pipes into houses and other buildings all over Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon was formed when the seawater, cooled but otherwise identical to the way it came from the Earth, was piped out the back of the plant as waste. Scientists thought that it would just quietly be absorbed back into the porous volcanic land. Instead, the minerals it contained sealed the pores and created an ever-expanding hot pool.
The Icelanders, never ones to waste an opportunity, began flocking there to bathe in the healing fluids, tinged blue because the silica in the water absorbs the colour red. The lagoon's healing powers are so well documented that both the Danish and Icelandic medical systems send people here to poach themselves in the salty fluids.
As for Swartsengi, it is one of three plants that produce enough cheap geothermal energy to heat 87 per cent of Icelandic houses and industrial plants, says Thorsteinn Jonsson, head of communications for the plant.
Energy is so plentiful that once the hot water heats up their homes, they run it underground to keep sidewalks and driveways free from snow and ice.
For all of Prof. Arnason's conviction, the brave new hydrogen economy has shades of a fairy tale: Fierce little Iceland kicking up against all the big money that has so many interests vested in keeping fossil fuels the main source of energy.
But it's not a fairy tale. Rather than trying to keep hydrogen fuel at bay the notoriously self-protective energy players and car manufacturers are buying in.
DaimlerChrysler, Shell Hydrogen and Norsk Hydro are already financial partners in Iceland's project, along with the Icelandic people themselves.
Prof. Arnason used to wonder about it. Why the interest? Why not try to shut it all down? He asked Shell. "They said: 'It's very simple. We want to be selling energy in 50 years when there's no more oil.' "
Alanna Mitchell is The Globe and Mail's earth sciences reporter.
contribute to this article
contribute to this article
add comment to discussion